WHATEVER you or anyone else may think about foie gras, the French love it. They consume around 19,000 tonnes every year, much of it at Christmas.
It’s traditional to wash it down with a glass of sweet wine. There are many to choose from, but Sauternes is the king, the intense, rich wine from Bordeaux made from strange, shrivelled, ‘nobly’ rotten grapes. In anticipation of the Christmas feast, sales of Sauternes soar at this time of the year.
I went to visit one of the most famous estates, Château Suduiraut and was shown around by its technical director Pierre Montégut.
“Everyone in France drinks one glass of Sauternes a year,” he told me, “Our problem is to persuade them to drink a second and more.”
Pierre is far from convinced that foie gras is Sauterne’s natural or best partner. He recommends sipping it as an aperitif, or drinking it with cheese, especially blue cheese, or maybe best of all, as a partner to spicy Sichuan cuisine.
The great sweet wines of Bordeaux including Sauternes and Barsac account for less than 1pc of the total production of the Bordeaux region. In every sense it is a rare treat.
Three grape varieties are grown: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, but Sémillon rules. At Suduiraut it accounts for 90pc of their 92 hectares of vines, to Sauvignon’s 10pc. In the warm summers of south west France it becomes gorged with sugar. In 2005 the grapes were so sweet that if any yeast had been capable of it, which it is not, they would have made a dry wine with over 30pc alcohol.
Sunshine is essential for the production of fine Sauternes, but fine autumn mists play their part too. The vineyards are not far from the mighty River Garonne and are crossed by a meandering tributary, the Ciron. In the moist morning atmosphere the ripe grapes are infected by a fungus – botrytis cinerea.
Instead of turning the grapes into the vinegary mush of grey rot, this ‘noble’ rot works a little magic. It devours the sugars and acids in the berries, but also renders the skins so porous so that the net effect is to so diminish the water content in the grapes that they end up shrivelled and intensely sweet. They also become sticky with glycerol and develop new aromas and flavours, a bit like bitter orange marmalade.
Because the skins are now so thin, every grower prays for fine settled weather until the harvest is complete. Most of the top estates, like Suduiraut employ large teams of pickers, as many as 150 people, who pass up to five separate times through the vineyard over a period of days, in an effort to gather only the nobly rotten grapes.
Pierre’s prayers were not answered in 2012. As October began hopes were high. Noble rot settled on ripe grapes, but then it began to rain. The grapes started to swell and harvest had to be done quickly before the dreaded grey rot set in. The wine is healthy, but it is not as unctuous as in 2009 or 2010 – two marvellous harvests. The yield was a derisory 800 litres of juice per hectare. Pierre needs at least twice as much in order to make a profit. Owners of Sauternes estates need to have a pretty phlegmatic view of life. Some years you just have to grin and bear your losses.
Fortunately for Pierre and Suduiraut, the estate is owned by the giant French insurance group AXA, who are prepared to take a long-term view.
Once the grapes have been gathered, the hard work in the cellars begins. A top wine like Suduiraut is aged in small oak casks for up to two years before it can be bottled, during which time its progress has to be carefully monitored. Pierre estimates that the cost of making a bottle of the very best Sauternes can be as much as €26. It’s no wonder then that it’s never going to be cheap and will always be something of a special occasion drink.
But as well as encouraging us to drink it more often, Pierre would love to overturn some of the fusty attitudes to Sauternes that still persist in France as much as over here.
For example, it is, not he insists, a ‘pudding wine’. He aims to make a wine with delicious balancing acidity and immense subtlety which will be completely overwhelmed by all but the lightest fruity desserts. Forget plum pudding. Although old Sauternes can be delicious, Pierre insists that you don’t have to cellar it for 20 years; and as long as you treat it with the respect due to any wine, it won’t give you a headache.
And so we went off to dinner that evening at the Bonheur du Palais, where the finest Sichuan cuisine in Bordeaux can be found. And yes, the Suduiraut, four different vintages, proved to be an astonishingly good partner for spicy king prawns, chicken in bang bang sauce, tea-smoked salmon and much, much more, in the manner of a proper Chinese banquet.
It is very clear that a wine of the complexity and richness of Suduiraut really does work well with a host of dishes.
I dare you to dare a little too. Treat yourself and make Pierre’s day.
There’s more information about Château Suduiraut and its wines on my blog: www.helensavage.com
WINE OF THE WEEK
Montes Limited Selection Late Harvest Gewurztraminer 2011 £9.99 (half bottle) The Wine Chambers
Irresistibly moreish sweet white wine from Chile with an amazing smell of creamy bananas, lychee and rose petals and a very rich apricot-sweet, juicy flavour with a floral farewell. Try it with almost any cheese, or something spicy from South East Asia.
Château Suduiraut 2004 is available locally from Richard Granger in Jesmond for £38.40 – a hot price for a wine of such superb quality. It’s fully mature and gorgeous. Amongst the supermarkets, Waitrose have far and away the best selection, with half bottles (always a good idea) of Château Doisy-Daene 2005 (£17.99) and Château Liot 2009 (£13.49) as well as of their own-label Sauternes 2006, made at Château Suduiraut itself (£15.49) – a relatively light year, that made very elegant wines especially well suited to partnering South Asian cuisine.
Majestic offer half bottles of Clos L'Abeille 2009 (£9.99) and Carruthers & Kent offer the excellent Clos Dady. I have only tasted the 2010 (£30) and was greatly impressed by its luscious but very elegant fruit. Half bottles of the 2009 are also available.